Remember storylines? No? Well, once upon a time in the sports world, we had these things called storylines. Entering a season, or a playoff series, or a draft, or some other such moment, there were players and people that we focused on, because they held a particular level of interest for a particular reason. Would Player X be able to fill Departed Player Y’s shoes? Would Rookie Z be the next big thing? Will Player A overcome Adversity B?
They were just talking points, really. A place to start the conversation. They evolved as the season or series went on, depending on the facts on the ground.
Well, somewhere along the way, storylines became The Narrative, a proper noun and immutable fact. The Narrative is far more stubborn than regular old storylines, entrenching itself in the sports consciousness (often in meme form). But The Narrative can change, too. Alex Ovechkin was a playoff failure until he wasn’t. The Penguins were one-Cup wonders until they weren’t. Corey Crawford was soft with a weak glove hand until he wasn’t. The Wild were boring until they weren’t. Hockey would never work in the South until it did.
But changing The Narrative is hard, and it tends to take a historic run or a dramatic move to change. So the opportunity is there, but so is the pressure. Being in the hot seat can mean your job is on the line, but it also can mean your reputation is on the line.
With that latter interpretation in mind, here are a baker’s dozen people around the league — in and out of the playoff picture — facing the highest stakes and hoping to change The Narrative, as we transition to the pressure-cooker that is the playoffs and the yawning chasm of the unknown that is the offseason.
Mitch Marner, Maple Leafs winger
Mitch Marner is so good that Oilers fans are painting him as Leon Draisaitl to Auston Matthews’ Connor McDavid, a disqualifying co-equal presence in the Hart Trophy debate. Only seven players in the league scored at a higher rate this season than Marner’s 1.37 points per game. He’s outstanding at 5-on-5, on the power play and on the penalty kill. He’s a complete player.
Except … in the postseason. The Leafs have been eliminated in the first round in all five of Marner’s previous seasons, and he has scored five total goals — zero over 12 games in the last two postseasons. Now let’s be honest, you could pretty much put the entire Leafs organization on this list. Hell, you could put the entire city of Toronto on this list, as the fan base is probably feeling the pressure as much as the players are. The whole Choking Leafs narrative is an awfully stubborn one, one backed up by years of evidence. Knocking off the two-time defending champion Lightning, with Marner leading the way, would go a long way toward finally changing it. Failing to do so, well, one shudders to think.
Jared Bednar, Avalanche coach
Colorado’s 2016-17 season, Bednar’s first behind the bench, is the 49th-worst in NHL history by points percentage, and the 26th-worst in the last 50 years. But since then, all he’s done is win — in the regular season, that is. Bednar’s Avs are 218-112-42 in the last five seasons, a .642 points percentage that puts him in line with the likes of Jon Cooper, Bruce Boudreau and Bruce Cassidy.
But here’s how the last four years ended: First-round loss, second-round loss, second-round loss, second-round loss. The Avalanche have been champions-in-waiting for a few years now, and this is their best team yet — a group that went an astounding 38-6-4 out of the Christmas COVID-19 break until a recent meaningless four-game losing streak. Bednar’s at no risk of losing his job here, but at some point, you have to get out of the second round. Nathan MacKinnon’s bargain-basement contract — his $6.3-million cap hit is less than Ryan Kesler’s — has just one year left on it. Nazem Kadri has probably priced himself out of Colorado. It’s only going to get harder from here. And with either the Wild or the Blues waiting in the second round, that elusive trip to the Western Conference final — and beyond — is no sure thing.
Johnny Gaudreau, Flames winger
OK, so this is what we’re doing here? Just naming really good, really well-regarded people around the league and imagining they’re on the hot seat? Well, yeah. Expectations rise with performance, and few have performed better this season than Johnny Hockey. The subject of trade rumors in recent seasons, Gaudreau is now a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate with 115 points in leading the Flames to the top of the Pacific Division standings. It’s been the ultimate walk year for Gaudreau, whom the Flames decided not to extend last summer, a decision that could cost them millions of dollars in cap space in the years to come — if Gaudreau doesn’t test free agency, that is.
Here’s the thing: Gaudreau’s previous playoff runs have been underwhelming, and the Flames have won just one true playoff series in Gaudreau’s tenure, way back in his rookie season in 2015. No matter what and no matter where Gaudreau’s getting paid this summer. But if he can dominate the playoffs the way he’s dominated the regular season this year, he can get that McDavid money over the summer.
Kelly McCrimmon, Golden Knights general manager
You won’t find much sympathy around the league for Vegas’ plight. The schadenfreude is real and it is spectacular. But the Knights’ collapse down the stretch and stunning failure to make the playoffs has wrought absolute chaos in Vegas. All McCrimmon has to do is figure out his coaching situation (will he fire Pete DeBoer?), his goaltending situation (is Robin Lehner the latest star Vegas goalie whose relationship with the team is unsalvageable?) and his salary-cap situation (welcome to town, Jack Eichel). All while the most impatient owner in the league looks over his shoulder.
Sergei Bobrovsky, Panthers goaltender
In his 12 NHL seasons, Bobrovsky has a .916 save percentage, with a 45.1 GSAx, per Evolving Hockey, the highest in the league in that time frame. In his eight NHL postseasons, Bobrovsky has an .899 save percentage, with a minus-25.26 GSAx. That’s as Jekyll-and-Hyde as it gets. The Panthers are a super-fun offensive juggernaut that seems perfectly content to win games 5-4 and 6-5, but open ice and power plays tend to be harder to come by in the playoffs. Average goaltending should theoretically be enough for Florida to make a deep run. But can Bobrovsky provide even that? And can he even hold off Spencer Knight, who was just named the NHL rookie of the month after going 6-1 with a .925 save percentage in April?’
You could throw coach Andrew Brunette on this list, too, because while he did terrific work taking over for Joel Quenneville mid-stream in the regular season, the postseason is where Quenneville always stood apart from other coaches. A master of in-game matchups and series-long adjustments, Quenneville’s Blackhawks teams were 32-8 in Games 5-7, including 15-1 in Game 6s, and won all nine series that were at one point tied 2-2. As a first-year head coach, can Brunette hold his own head-to-head with the likes of Cooper, Cassidy, Rod Brind’Amour, Mike Sullivan and more?
Don Waddell, Hurricanes general manager
While other Eastern Conference contenders bulked up at the trade deadline — the Panthers added Claude Giroux and Ben Chiarot, the Lightning added Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul, the Bruins added Hampus Lindholm, the Rangers added Andrew Copp, the Leafs added Mark Giordano, the Penguins added Rickard Rakell — Waddell largely stood pat, taking a low-cost flier on Max Domi, who has just two goals and five assists since being acquired.
Now, believing in your team and holding on to your assets is fine. Based on the track record of deadline rentals, more GMs might want to try it. But if the Hurricanes squander a division championship with an early exit for the second straight season, Waddell’s reluctance to go big and chase someone such as Jakob Chychrun or John Klingberg will be second-guessed into oblivion.
Cam Talbot, Wild goaltender
Maybe Talbot didn’t take Bill Guerin’s trade for Marc-André Fleury personally, but he clearly took it as a challenge. Since the third-winningest goaltender in NHL history came to Minnesota, Talbot has been spectacular — 8-0-3 with a .925 save percentage since the trade.
So who’s the real Talbot? The goalie whose first half earned him an All-Star Game appearance and whose finish has been tremendous, or the guy who got torched for six goals by first-round foe St. Louis at the Winter Classic and who sputtered so badly from late-January to early March that Guerin spent a conditional second-round pick to bring Fleury aboard? Can Talbot seize the net in the playoffs? Considering that conditional pick becomes a first-rounder if Fleury wins four games and the Wild reach the conference final, you know Guerin is hoping so.
Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks forwards
Few players in modern NHL history are as intrinsically linked with a franchise as much as Kane and Toews, the faces of three Stanley Cup runs from 2010-2015. Not too long ago, they seemed sure to go down as Chicago lifers. But the Blackhawks’ on-ice woes, combined with their off-ice shame, has upended all the narratives. Both players are eligible for contract extensions on July 13 as they enter the last year of their matching eight-year, $84-million deals. But will they even make it that far?
There will surely be some trade interest in Kane — still an all-world talent — at the draft. And Toews — in decline, but a potential monster of a third-line center on a contender — has been lukewarm at best to the idea of a prolonged rebuild. Each player has a full no-movement clause, so the ball’s largely in their court. And if they do want out? Imagine being 33-year-old first-year GM Kyle Davidson, and having to swing those deals with the franchise’s future hanging in the balance. Good luck, kid.
Ville Husso and Jordan Binnington, Blues goaltenders
Husso and Binnington have split the Blues’ games this season pretty much right down the middle, but Husso is clearly the No. 1 goalie by any reasonable metric. Husso’s 14.18 GSAx is better than the likes of Connor Hellebuyck, Juuse Saros and Jonathan Quick. And Binnington’s minus-10.01 GSAx is 45th among goalies who’ve had more than a cup of coffee in the league this season. Husso’s save percentage? .919. Binnington’s? .901. It’s no contest.
But Binnington’s name is on the Stanley Cup. Husso’s isn’t. So while Husso appears poised to get the Game 1 start, the leash likely will be short, especially with such a dangerous first-round opponent in Minnesota. And if Binnington does get in, it’ll be because the Blues are up against it, and he’ll have no time to ease his way back into the No. 1 role. If the Blues get solid goaltending, they’re somewhat sneaky Cup contenders. But can they pick the right one?
Jim Nill, Stars general manager
What are the Dallas Stars, exactly? Well, aside from their bubble run to the Stanley Cup Final two years ago — and let’s face it, just about everything that happened in the bubble is pretty easy to cast aside — they’re exactly what they always seem to be: a streaky, tantalizing, maddening, fringe playoff team. Yes, they made the playoffs this season, but they did it with a negative goal differential (the only playoff team to do so) and with 15 wins in overtime or shootouts, both of which barely qualify as hockey and neither of which appears in postseason play.
Both Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn are signed through doomsday, Joe Pavelski is an ageless wonder, and pending RFA Jason Robertson is worth every dollar of cap space Nill can scrounge up. But with John Klinberg potentially walking away for nothing, no goalies signed for next season (though Jake Oettinger’s return as an RFA is a sure thing) and holes all over the roster, what can Nill really do to bump the Stars off the bubble?
Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Oilers centers
All two of the world’s greatest players have done over the past several seasons is dominate the NHL and put up 1980s-level point totals. And all certain corners of the hockey world have done is poke holes in their games and try to pin Edmonton’s playoff failures on them, conveniently choosing to ignore, well, everything else about the roster and the organization.
Mike Smith has an excellent, albeit short, postseason record. His 2012 run with the Coyotes was Conn Smythe-level stuff for a few rounds. But you get the sense that Smith could give up seven goals a night this time around and somehow McDavid and Draisaitl would get the blame. It’s The Narrative to end all Narratives, and it’ll take something special to change it. Fortunately for McDavid and Draisaitl, doing something special is kind of their thing.
(Top photo of Johnny Gaudreau and Mitch Marner: Claus Andersen / Getty Images)